Fred Wilson, a well-known venture capitalist whose firm has invested in Twitter, published a blog post earlier this week that raised eyebrows amongst third party developers who develop on the Twitter platform.
The reason? It sent an ominous message to many of them: Twitter might put you out of business soon.
Much of the early work on the Twitter Platform has been filling holes in the Twitter product. It is the kind of work General Computer was doing in Cambridge in the early 80s. Some of the most popular third party services on Twitter are like that. Mobile clients come to mind. Photo sharing services come to mind. URL shorteners come to mind. Search comes to mind. Twitter really should have had all of that when it launched or it should have built those services right into the Twitter experience.
Wilson's post goes on to suggest that "the time for filling the holes in the Twitter service has come and gone". Developers should instead focus on developing "entirely new things that will shape the Internet in the coming years".
The significance of Wilson's post and the reason why it has sparked so much discussion: he sits on the Twitter board of directors. If he thinks there are services that should have been built into Twitter from the get-go and proclaims "the time for filling the holes in the Twitter service has come and gone", it doesn't take a lot of imagination to read between the lines. His post appears to be an invitation to developers, but also a warning.
In responding to questions about his post, Wilson has stated that the post are his opinions and do not necessarily reflect Twitter's official stance. But Business Insider has cataloged a number of supportive tweets from Twitter employees. One from Doug Williams, who is involved with the Twitter platform, goes so far as to state that Wilson's post is "incredibly timely". He suggests all Twitter developers read it. These tweets lend credence to the notion that Twitter is rethinking its relationship with developers.
Currently, Twitter runs one of the most laissez-faire platforms around, at least on the consumer internet. Its hands-off approach has certainly sparked a significant amount of innovation that has benefited Twitter users. At the same time, the fact that Twitter itself increasingly controls so little of the average Twitter experience for so many users leaves it in a tough position as a business. After all, if a non-negligible number of Twitter users experience Twitter through third party products and nearly all of the value-added features that individuals and businesses would be willing to pay for are already being provided by unaffiliated developers, the company is going to have a really hard time realizing its monetization potential.
Twitter investors like Wilson, who have sunk over $150m into the company at bubble-like valuations, certainly know this. Which is precisely why it would be foolish to believe that Wilson's post was merely a reflection of his personal stream of consciousness. If Twitter's potential is ever going to translate to profit, Twitter absolutely has to stop controlling less and less of the user experience, and start controlling more of the user experience.
The challenge for Twitter, of course, is that it would have to renegotiate the terms of engagement with developers to do so. Yet this could irreparably damage its reputation with some of its most prolific developers, who probably aren't going to be thrilled at the prospect that Twitter wants the territory they've already carved out for themselves in the Twitter ecosystem as it exists today. But when push comes to shove, what choice does Twitter have? If it wants to change the third party developer's role in the evolution of its product, it is essentially going to have to pull a bait and switch.
That's rarely a sound business strategy, and Twitter's dilemma highlights just how difficult it is to get developer platforms right. While the developer ecosystem Twitter has built around its core product is quite impressive, Twitter arguably misjudged what its core product would need to include. Whether it can rectify that mistake without a significant amount of collateral damage only time will tell.
Photo credit: taberandrew via Flickr.